Here’s how isolation affects people’s social interaction, especially in the midst of Covid

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Results of new research from Cornell University suggest that female mice show a strong willingness to socialize with other females after periods of acute isolation, dramatically increasing their production of social calls that are akin to vocalizations. human emotional.

The researchers, whose study was published in PLOS ONE, said their behavior suggests a promising avenue for understanding the brain mechanisms by which isolation affects people’s social motivation and mental health – a growing concern during the pandemic. of Covid-19.

“This type of social interaction between female mice is most equivalent to our daily interactions with other people,” said Katherine Tschida, assistant professor of psychology at the College of Arts and Sciences. “Intuitively, we know that social isolation has this effect on our behavior: we want to see and interact with people.”

The researchers set out to determine whether exposure to acute isolation – three days alone in its host cage – would result in so-called ultrasonic vocalizations (USVs) in mice, as well as non-vocal social behaviors such as sniffle and follow when another mouse has been introduced into the cage.

Inaudible to humans, Tschida said USVs are not speech or language, but sounds such as laughter, crying and sighing that help indicate and communicate emotional states.

“It’s this type of innate, emotional vocal communication that we produce in addition to our learned speech sounds,” Tschida said. “By studying it in a mouse, we think we will also understand how this process is controlled in humans.”

Female-female interactions showed a “deep effect” of acute isolation: a fourfold increase in USV compared to a control group of mice housed in groups and more unvoiced social behaviors.

“They interact a lot more, they vocalize a lot more,” Tschida said, “and the behavior of the subject animal – the solitary mouse, basically – seems to be altered.”

Researchers believe that acute isolation may not be enough to significantly influence men’s sexual motivation with women or aggressive motivation with other men. But it seemed to have a big effect on the urge for affiliate social contact that was supposed to motivate women’s social interaction.

With a complicated caveat: After emerging from isolation, female mice more often mounted other females, perhaps a low-level aggressive expression aimed at establishing a social hierarchy.

Tschida’s lab is now moving from behavioral studies to neural studies of interactions between female mice. Researchers hope to identify neurons that encode social context and emotional states to determine how isolation acts on circuits that control social motivation, including vocalizations.

In the longer term, this knowledge could contribute to the understanding and treatment of disorders such as anxiety and depression, as well as factors that contribute to individual differences in susceptibility to social isolation.

“You feel lonely, you want to seek out social interaction – what is really causing this in the brain circuits? Tschida said. “Because we’ve fixed the behavioral exit issue, it becomes a much more treatable issue. ”

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